By JOHN MATUSZAK/The Herald-Palladium (St. Joseph)
ST. JOSEPH, Mich. (AP) – Carol Stockman’s grandson seemed to be steadily on the road to recovery from heroin addiction.
They were especially close, and shared the same birthday, Jan. 14.
“He was always willing to come over and do whatever grandma asked him to do,” Stockman said of her grandson, Sam Stockman, a Lakeshore High School graduate.
He was living next door to her, on the family farm, and was only two courses away from earning a degree in agriculture from Michigan State University. His plans included building a winery, according to The Herald-Palladium.
His drug addiction had threatened to ruin his future, but he sought treatment and had been clean for an extended period.
“He’d tell me, `Yeah, Grandma, I’m doing well,”‘ Stockman said.
But on Sept. 13 last year, he relapsed and died of an overdose. He was 24.
“I miss him dreadfully,” his grandmother said.
To help other families avoid such a tragedy, Stockman is organizing a communitywide effort to educate young people and parents about addiction.
Her effort is one of several local grassroots campaigns that are springing up to confront the problem of drug abuse.
“People are finally realizing that it’s not underground anymore,” said Stockman, who is working with Kerri Teachout, prevention specialist at the Berrien County Health Department. “You gotta admit it. I’m not ashamed to say Sam died of an OD. I’m not happy about it, but I’m not ashamed. You gotta admit those things.”
Heroin use has seen a resurgence in many parts of the country, and southwest Michigan hasn’t been spared, Teachout said.
“It’s not limited to one demographic,” Teachout said. “It’s not limited to students or young adults. It runs the gamut of race, ethnicity, age, rich and poor, black and white, good families and bad families.”
Stockman said she believes Sam started his drug use with marijuana and eventually gravitated to harder drugs. Many of those now using heroin started abusing prescription pain pills, and switched to the cheaper heroin when the pills became more expensive.
Heroin carries its own unique risks. Stockman was told by Sheriff Paul Bailey that batches are coming into the area that are mixed with other substances.
Teachout said that many young people drink alcohol and take different drugs at the same time, increasing the risk of overdose.
“That’s the danger part,” she said.
People like Sam, who have been off heroin for a while, don’t realize their tolerance is lower than before, also making an overdose more likely, Teachout said.
“You can’t go back to where you started,” she said.
Stockman, who has been involved in many community activities over the years, quickly marshaled her contacts, including members of the Lakeshore Excellence Foundation and the St. Joseph Public Schools Foundation.
“I feel the schools have to be a part of it. You have to start in the middle schools, or even in the elementary schools,” said Stockman, who would like to arrange for assemblies that include talks by young people who have experienced drug abuse and are in recovery. “We have to let the kids know they’re not the only ones who make mistakes.”
The initial discussions have been well-received.
The sudden surge of activism by Stockman and others is breaking down long-standing walls, Teachout said.
“This year everybody started talking. These are the doors we have been knocking on for the longest time, but they just shut the doors and it was `no, no, no.’ All of a sudden it’s `Can we talk to you?’ And it’s `Yes, yes, yes.”‘
In November, Teachout launched the Southwest Michigan Prevention Task Force, bringing together parents, people in recovery, therapists, prevention specialists and educators.
The organization aims to provide education and resources to families, so they know where to turn when a drug problem emerges.
St. Joseph High School Principal Kevin Riggs has pulled together a similar group to mount a public education campaign.
Others are forming a local chapter of Families Against Narcotics, which is expected to hold its first meeting in May.
Teachout is working with the Michigan State Police to hold a conference in August on the growing heroin epidemic.
Stockman contacted Teachout at the suggestion of Bailey, and a special bond has grown between them. They even learned that Stockman went to school with Teachout’s mother-in-law.
Teachout said that grandparents play an important role in the lives of their grandchildren, and can have a deep influence on the choices they make.
“My grandmother was very important to me,” she said. “I would live and die by her.”
Stockman has always found ways to help her community. The former Berrien County treasurer is active in her church, Scottdale United Methodist, was chairman of the Lakeshore Excellence Foundation. She volunteered with the Benton Harbor Street Ministry, founding a fundraising golf outing, in its 16th year, in the name of her late husband, Al.
She said she hopes her drug abuse prevention campaign will be one more contribution to improving the quality of life for residents.
“They tell us at our church that it only takes one spark to start a fire,” Stockman said. “I hope I can live long enough to be that spark.”
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